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3-D Printing in the Classroom Brings Ideas and Learning to Life

  • November 21, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solution Architect

Like early supercomputers, 3-D printers used to be massive, expensive, and complicated tools reserved for big league rapid prototyping and research. Today, through innovation, active online maker communities, and a significant drop in size and pricing, 3-D printers have moved beyond just being the latest “cool tool” to enabling impressive results in K-12 and higher education classrooms. Given its real-time, tactile, and largely intuitive processes, 3-D printing serves as an onramp to broader and more complex STEM curricula and activities.

Here’s an overview of several resources for introducing 3-D printing in your classroom as well as some examples of how this exciting technology is redefining learning experiences across the country.

Advancing STEM, One Print at a Time

STEM education emphasizes hands-on, experiential, and inquiry-based learning. That sounds complicated, and sometimes it is, but 3-D printers can translate many of the tenets of STEM learning into intuitive, practical activities for even the youngest learners.

Seymour Papert, artificial intelligence pioneer regarded by some as the “first interaction designer,” focused on constructionism, digital tools, and children. He believed in designing rich toolkits and environments rather than force-feeding children knowledge. 3-D printers fit perfectly into the evolution of Papert’s vision.

Paul Olson, lead teacher for District 196 K-12 STEM at Cedar Park Elementary School in Apple Valley, Minnesota, believes 3-D printing has played a major role in the district’s transformation. “Even in kindergarten and first grade, as they learn how to write, they 3-D print letters and other new shapes and take them home to share with their family,” said Ryan Erickson, a coordinator of Cedar Park’s makerspace.

Curriculum, Critical Thinking, and Courage

Across the country, teachers agree that 3-D printers have added value to their classrooms. Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a language arts teacher at Jefferson Middle School in San Gabriel, California, loves the curriculum options that 3-D printing brings.

“3-D printing has helped to open up another way of thinking about curriculum. It’s so exciting,” said Wolpert-Gawron. “I started thinking about new technology that would engage kids, which we could learn together, combined with a need at the middle school level to move beyond me-centric thinking and think about how we can change the world.”

3-D printers not only greatly expand curriculum, they also encourage critical thinking and comfort with uncertain outcomes. Markus Hartnett, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Glen Grove Elementary School in Glenview, Illinois, uses 3-D printers to teach students important trial and error and iteration skills that underlie STEM. “I think 3-D printing is a great tool to ease the fear of failure,” said Hartnett. “A student can design a prototype and see how it works and, if it fails, they can modify their design and print another one.”

K-12 students aren’t having all the fun. In colleges across the country, 3-D printing is fueling discovery, innovation, and in the case of the Helping Hand Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, life-changing impact. Through the project, students use 3-D printing to create prosthetic devices for children and adolescents born without fingers. The printed prosthetics cost about $20, a fraction of the price of traditionally manufactured products.

“When you’re printing the hands out and assembling them, it’s kind of just something that you’re doing,” said Kierra Falbo, a recently-graduated senior at Carolina and president of the Helping Hand Project. “But then when you actually deliver them and see that child use it and the happiness on their face, it’s unreal.”

Hit Print: Resources and Tips for Beginning a 3-D Printing Experience

Getting started may seem intimidating for teachers, but structured curriculum and online communities are available to speed and ease the transition. Explore curriculum options like Pitsco Education and Maker’s Empire, which offer resources for teachers without CAD software or design experience. Additionally, collaborative communities and resources on LinkedIn and Facebook are great for sparking creativity and joining the 3-D printing conversation.

ISTE has organized a useful buyer’s guide to 3-D printers for the classroom with key considerations given to learning goals and curve, as well as printing time. When you are ready to get started, utilize websites like Thingiverse, which offers open source .STL files appropriate for your classroom. You can also dive right into to design with free programs like Google SketchUp and Design 1-2-3.

Takeaway: Spurred on by access to inexpensive, small devices, free software and helpful online communities, schools are leveraging 3-D printers to transform student learning experiences at all grade levels. As students become immersed in this technology, their STEM skills, and even their outlook on the world are changing. 3-D printers literally turn their ideas into reality, and the sky’s the limit for what problems they’ll solve.


1. “3-D Printing” NMC Horizon Report 2016 K12 Edition. 2016.
2. “3-D Printing: A Buyer’s Guide” ISTE. January 26, 2016.
3. “8 Best Practices for Classroom 3-D Printing” Moss Educational & Industrial Training Solutions. September 16, 2015.
4. “Developing Futures in STEM: 3-D Printing Boosts a Minnesota District’s K-12 Learning” Technical Training Aids. May 25, 2016.
5. “3-D Printing in Education: Beyond STEM” Matter Hackers. April 28, 2016.
6. “3-D Printing Engages Students in STEM” ASME. January 2016.
7. “A Helping Hand” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. May 17, 2016.